Word Imperfect

Today, people are speaking less strictly than ever before. JAMES M. KELLER looks at some commonly fouled-up musical terms.

Word Imperfect HDL 1211
Illustration by Janusz Kapusta
© Janusz Kapusta 2011

Thumbing through reviews of Stephen Sondheim's Company, as produced by the New York Philharmonic last April, I encountered this observation from a critic whom I will allow to remain nameless: "Recent Tony winner Katie Finneran couldn't get through the outrageous meter of 'Getting Married Today,' but she exchanged the jaw-dropping tempo for a turn of comic suffocation." I can't elucidate what the critic was hoping to express, but I do know that Katie Finneran sang the part of Amy, and that Amy does not intone a single measure of "Getting Married Today" that is written in anything other than 4/4 meter. Whatever 4/4 meter may be, it is not outrageous. All the way back in 1674, music theorist and publisher John Playford wrote of this meter, "Many call it the Common Time because most used," and the situation has not changed since. In fact, "Getting Married Today" alternates between spacious episodes (given to the Wedding Singer) and frantic ones (assigned to Amy). The bits for the Wedding Singer do include a smidgen of metrical complication, with measures of three beats occasionally inserted within the overriding common time. But when it comes to Amy's music, the meter — the repetitive arrangement of strong and weak beats — ticks along as steadily as a pacemaker with a fresh battery. 

A social contract attaches to words: if we don't use them correctly, we may as well be talking to ourselves. People who are devoted to opera tend to master specialized musical vocabulary only to the extent to which they need it. If you are the sort of person who utters words such as "falcon," "dugazon" and "baryton-martin" when describing singers, you doubtless spend an inordinate amount of time in Operaland speaking with like-minded people for whom it is important to make distinctions about vocal heft, color and range. 

Most people, however, are less invested in taxonomical esoterica, and among their ranks uncertainty may reign even about terms that are less arcane. A point of confusion that arises frequently involves the terms mezza voce and messa di voce, a mix-up that is more linguistic than conceptual. To Anglophones who do not speak Italian, the terms may sound similar enough to create uncertainty about which is which. Mezza voce means merely "half voice," indicating singing at half power with a concomitant suppression of volume and brilliance. Messa di voce is a different thing entirely, one of the chief aspirations born of vocal study. William Earl Brown's 1931 book Vocal Wisdom: Maxims of Giovanni Battista Lamperti passes on precepts that his teacher had mastered in the latter days of bel canto, and it presents messa di voce thus: "The most difficult problem in singing is to prolong and swell a tone at a given pitch, making a messa di voce." If you wanted to think through it from start to finish, you might turn to Richard Wistreich's explanation in The Cambridge Companion to Singing. It is, he discloses, "an exercise particularly on notes common to the chest and falsetto registers, in which the voice is gradually swelled from a pianissimo tone in falsetto to a forte in chest voice, returning with a diminuendo to the softest of falsetto tones, all perfectly graduated and disguising the change of register."

The meaning of words can change over time, making "correctness" of terminology a moving target. Then, too, usage can vary within a single language according to national preference. I flinch, for example, whenever my British brethren refer to an orchestra as a "band," although they have been doing so since the time of Handel, and it does provide a touch of vernacular variety. Then there's the matter of personal taste. A musical usage that has reached a point of equipoise is the interchanging of "measure" and "bar." Properly speaking, a measure is a short expanse of music — a unit, as it happens, that corresponds to the expression of the meter. A bar, or bar-line, is the typographical stroke that separates one measure from the next. Though "measure" and "bar" have become largely equivalent through popular usage, the distinction was a bugbear of a composition professor I once had, and I have never dared to use the words interchangeably without worrying that I might be punished by having to listen again to his music, which was as fearsome as he was.

In some cases, people employ terms in an imprecise sense when it would be just as easy to sharpen their points. The term "concert aria," for example, is a catchall locution that, I think, refers to too many things at once. Some "concert arias" are written expressly to be sung in a concert, without any dramatic context. But the term is also used to describe certain vocal pieces composed for special occasions at court or among a circle of friends, perhaps not specifically for a concert. The expression might point to what are more exactly called insertion arias (composed by — let's say — Mozart for insertion into a pre-existing opera, whether his or someone else's) or substitution arias (written to replace an existing aria in an opera). What's more, the "concert arias" we are most likely to encounter, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are often more than just arias; they often come with an introductory recitative attached, a combination that constitutes an entire dramatic scene, rather than just an aria.

Defining vocal terminology can be elusive. Experts occasionally disagree, at least in details, and they can do so with considerable passion, quite justifiably in cases where a word may invite a potentially damaging misconception. "Placement" is one example. Voice students encounter it all the time, and it invites them to think they are to physically position their voices somewhere. "There's so much talk about placement being a bad word, and I know a lot of people feel very strongly about that," observed Helen Swank in Elizabeth Blades-Zeller's book A Spectrum of Voices (2003). Richard Miller, a hugely respected authority on the physiological aspects of voice production, wrote in his 2004 volume Solutions for Singers, "It is not possible to literally place tone. Yet sensations for singers are registered in specific parts of the body...." Lamperti (via Brown) placed the word in quotation marks: "The more evident the sensation of resonance in the cavities of head and mouth, the better the 'placement' of voice" — and elsewhere advised dispensing with it entirely: "The term 'voice placing' is a misnomer. 'Voice-finding' is a more appropriate expression."

Another word Lamperti didn't like is "attack," or, as he put it, "The beginning of a tone (mis-called 'attack')," because "it is a 'free-ing' and not a 'hitting' process." Attempting to attack a tone literally, he felt, could cause grievous damage to a singer. The revered nineteenth-century pedagogue Manuel García referred to the "attack" as the coup de glotte. When Hermann Klein presented García's method under the title Hints on Singing (1894), he cautioned, "The meaning of the term 'stroke of the glottis,' which was invented by the author [García] (French: coup de la glotte), has been seriously misrepresented, and its misuse has done a great deal of harm. To the student it is meant to describe a physical act of which there should be merely a mental cognizance, not an actual physical sensation." Imagery and illusion play prominent roles in vocal instruction, but we need to be careful to use images that are only helpful and never harmful.

"Support" falls into the same category. "I have been so vocal about my objection to the use of the word support," wrote W. Stephen Smith in The Naked Voice (2007), "that my students sometimes refer to it as 'the S-word.' If it were up to me, the word would be obliterated from the vocabulary of all voice teachers, coaches, conductors and singers. My strong objection is due to the vocal production problems that arise out of the images this word evokes. The actions resulting from the use of the term support almost always cause increased air pressure.... Certainly some people mean airflow when they say 'support.'" Point taken.

There are words we may all understand to mean pretty much the same thing and yet define from differing points of view. Asked to explain "tessitura," for example, I would say it is the array of pitches generally touched on in the course of a composition, but not counting the extreme notes that may make more momentary appearances. That concurs with the opinion of the prolific Louis C. Elson, who in his wonderfully named book Mistakes and Disputed Points of Music and Music Teaching (1910) declared, "The vocal teacher must not forget that a mere statement of the highest and lowest note of a song does not always indicate its fitness for a certain class of voice. It is the tessitura, the general pitch of the tones, which determines that. Thus one could write a song in this compass" — he notates the E at the bottom of the treble staff and the E an octave higher — "which might be an alto song, while another song in exactly the same compass might be as clearly a soprano selection." The glossary of Blades-Zeller's A Spectrum of Voices, however, surprised me with this definition of tessitura: "Area within a singer's vocal range produced with least strain." The Harvard Dictionary of Music agrees: "Voices of similar range may be unlike in tessitura — that part of the range that is most comfortable for the singer and sounds best." These seem to approach a similar idea, but from the singer's point of view, rather than as a description of the composition itself. In any case, it behooves us not to confuse tessitura with range. In my experience, not many people do, probably because people who use such a word as tessitura are likely to know precisely what it means.

A further word haunts me — opera. Not the kind in which dugazons, their voices firmly supported for placement in medium tessitura, attack measure after measure of music in various meters. I refer instead to opera, the plural of opus. It gives me pause. It is one thing to speak of Richard Strauss's operas Salome, Op. 54, and Elektra, Op. 58, but I cannot quite imagine referring to his operas Opera 54 and 58. Fortunately, the titles will do just fine. spacer 

JAMES M. KELLER is program annotator of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony and critic-at-large of the Santa Fe New Mexican. His book Chamber Music: A Listener's Guide was published this year by Oxford University Press. 

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10